Mumbai: The bitterness in India-US ties is a result of dampening enthusiasm about India following the slowdown in Asia’s third largest economy, said Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specializing in international security, defence and Asian strategic issues. Tellis, who was born in Mumbai and studied at St. Xavier’s College in the city before moving to Chicago for his PhD, worked for the US Foreign Service, and as a senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for political affairs. He has worked closely with the Indian government in negotiating the civilian nuclear agreement between India and the US. Tellis, who is coediting a book detailing the agenda for the next government in India, Getting India Back on Track: An Action Agenda for Reform, spoke in an interview about US-India ties and Manmohan Singh’s legacy, on a visit to Mumbai. Edited excerpts:

The prosecution of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade seems to have given a big jolt to India-US ties. Do you think this episode highlights deeper problems in India-US relations?

This episode showed that despite the transformation of relations between the two countries, that transformation is still fragile—it does not have deep roots as yet. One reason for the fragility is that the transformation was driven primarily by far-sighted leaders on both sides in a top-down manner. There was no transformation at the popular level—at least not yet. The second reason is that the burdens of history have not yet been erased. There are many people in India who still remember the United States as being unsympathetic and unhelpful for many decades.

In my own view, the Khobragade episode was needless. The events leading up to the crisis should have provided reasons for both sides to act cooperatively, not to let relations sour. If everyone had done their jobs, both on the Indian and the US side, this problem could have been handled with a great deal of discretion. The fact that it came to a point where prosecution became inevitable meant that we had dropped the ball. Both sides dropped the ball—including the US state department, which is usually a model of tact and efficiency.

What are the key steps that India and the US could take to improve bilateral relations?

There are three key things we need to do. First, we need to settle this silly spat over the Khobragade issue, not because it has strategic significance, but because it affects the key players responsible for taking the relationship forward: the ministry of external affairs in India and the state department in the US. If these entities are not enthused about the relationship, there is nothing you can do to move forward.

Second, with a new government taking charge in New Delhi, it is important that India get back on the high-growth track. It must be understood that a great deal of the dampening enthusiasm for the bilateral relationship arose long before Khobragade. The Khobragade episode was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was not the precipitant that unravelled the relationship. The unravelling of the relationship came during the second UPA (United Progressive Alliance) term when American companies, and business more generally (even in India), not to mention the US government, began to see New Delhi as losing direction—manifested by its emphasizing populism over productivity, and its questionable policies on issues such as taxation. I think the derailing of the reform and growth locomotives in India caused real harm to India-US ties because it meant that the deepening economic ties that the US was looking for in India were frustrated. In such a context, even small things began to be magnified, becoming large irritants. India therefore needs to get back to creating a stable and predictable policy environment. If that happens, US optimism about economic ties with India will immediately soar, and that will rub off onto the entire bilateral relationship.

Third, the US government has to think of some big initiatives that serve bilateral interests. We need better leadership in the US where India is concerned: someone to take responsibility for implementing President (Barack) Obama’s vision; someone to focus on what “big ideas" might yield traction; someone to create a package of initiatives in those issue areas and negotiate those initiatives with India. And, of course, all this would require a government in New Delhi interested in and capable of building the strategic partnership.

The last big initiative was the nuclear deal in 2009, but progress on civilian nuclear cooperation has stalled.

At the strategic level, the deal has been a great success. It has changed the way Indian elites look at the US. It is not an enduring achievement as yet, but it is a huge breakthrough. Secondly, the nuclear agreement saved the Indian nuclear industry by providing it access to foreign fuel and foreign technology, which it did not have earlier. The third achievement has been that India is now connected to the global nuclear research and development efforts. India is now part of the major nuclear research experiments that are being done, and to the extent that India values further engagement here, the doors are wide open.

The big hole that the agreement has not yet filled is scaling up the use of nuclear energy in India by enabling the country to build new high-output nuclear reactors quickly. The progress on that front has unfortunately been stymied because of the laws relating to liability in India. What the US did was clear the roadblocks that prevented India from expanding the share of nuclear energy in overall power generation. Now, India has to make some fundamental choices about whether it wants to expand the use of nuclear energy domestically—and that will require revising the current liability law. Under the current law, it is very difficult for foreign vendors to work in India. More importantly, it will be even more difficult for Indian vendors to support the growth of the nuclear industry in India under the current liability regime because it is easier to seize the assets of an Indian company in case of an accident than it is in the case of a foreign firm.

Overall, how do you assess Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s legacy on foreign policy?

I think Singh’s foreign policy legacy will be much better than the economic legacy, particularly in the second term. The economic legacy largely represents an opportunity lost, whereas on foreign policy there were important gains. The relationship with the US was kept on an even keel until the Khobragade episode. His breakthrough with Japan, if sustained, will have enduring strategic significance. The Prime Minister managed to keep relations with China in working order despite several irritants such as the border intrusions. He also kept relations with India’s subcontinental partners in equilibrium, although there were some lost opportunities, which a more astute and involved prime minister would have avoided. The fiasco over the Teesta water agreement with Bangladesh is a prime example. But, by and large, his record on foreign policy is not embarrassing. Still, my own view is that he could have done much better if he had asserted himself on the key issues he felt strongly about. The relationship with the US could have been much stronger if he had personally invested as much in the second term as he did in the first. To give you an example, the US and India have a very strong defence relationship, but there were terrific roadblocks at the Indian end because defence minister (A.K.) Antony was not as enthusiastic about this relationship as the Prime Minister was. So, within his own party and within his own government, Singh tragically was unable to push things that were dear to his own agenda.

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